Magma: live in concert (pt. 2)


Dear Matthew:

That was certainly a prog rock band.

Now, I’m not ready to give up on prog just yet. There’s got to be something out there I can really get into. Maybe I should finally give these King Crimson guys that everyone keeps talking about a spin. But Magma is definitely not for me.

There’s no arguing that Magma are talented. The tone their bassist gets out of his instrument is incredible. Their drummer’s vocal solo in what you informed me was your favourite Magma song of all time would put any classically trained tenor in the world to shame, and his drum face is amazing. There were definite moments in the set that I enjoyed. But there’s only so far that raw talent can take you in terms of making music that’s actually enjoyable for (most) people to listen to. Sure, it’s very technically impressive that you can play in weird keys and modes and flawlessly stick to bizarre time signatures and invent an entire language in which to sing. But that means you end up with music with no riffs to ride on, no grooves to lock into, and no vocal hooks to lodge in people’s brains.

In other words, you end up with probably the least accessible music I have ever heard.

I expressed this sentiment to you after the show, and you didn’t disagree. And indeed, the lack of accessibility doesn’t seem to have prevented Magma from growing a solid fanbase over the years — a substantial portion of the crowd were nodding/singing/otherwise moving in a way that suggested rather intimate familiarity with the material. So what’s the missing link here? What am I not getting?

You’ve said that you don’t like not liking things because it makes you feel ignorant, and that’s kind of how I’m feeling about this. I found myself asking myself the same thing you asked of Beardyman: ‘What is this music even for?’ Since everything is so abstract and non-traditional, they could be just standing there making shit up for an hour and a half and I would have no idea. In calling these guys out, though, I feel kind of like the guy who complains that his three-year-old could paint a Jackson Pollock.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s telling that I was at the same venue less than a week prior to see the Ting Tings, who are about as diametrically opposed to Magma as you can get while still actually playing drums and stringed instruments. Maybe going to a show with the intention of intellectualizing it afterward is a flawed approach, especially when an MC comes out before the show and explicitly instructs the audience to not try to intellectualize the show. But the more I think about it the more I realize: apart from virtuosic performances, that show had almost none of the elements I appreciate in live music, or even music in general.

But that’s not what a band like Magma is going for, is it.

— Matt


Magma: live in concert (pt. 1)


Dear Matt:

How appropriate that immediately after my confused, vaguely angry response to Die Antwoord, you’re coming with me to see Magma in concert.

Let me explain Magma. Magma is a jazz-fusiony prog band from France, led by virtuoso drummer Christian Vander. They’ve made 11 albums, each of which further expounds the sprawling utopian sci-fi mythos that they’ve developed over the course of their half-century of existence. Magma doesn’t just do concept albums. They’re a concept band.

The actual story that the albums tell is pretty tough to discern, because the bulk of the music is sung in Vander’s constructed language of Kobaïan, which is sort of a blend of French, German and speaking in tongues. Vander even came up with a Kobaïan name for the genre of music Magma plays. It’s called “Zeuhl” (pronounced “tsoil”), and it is characterized by slow-burning repetitive patterns, chanting from the small choir of backup singers that always accompanies the band, and virtuosic free improvisations on the bass, drums and guitar.

Lyric translations are not available because many Kobaïan words don’t have literal meanings. However, we do know that the basic premise of Magma’s mythology is that after an ecological crisis on Earth, a segment of humankind takes to space and colonizes the far-off planet of Kobaïa. Then there is adventure and and there are wars and there is quite a lot of chant-based spirituality.

I’ve never quite been able to figure out whether Vander actually believes that this story will come to pass. Most of his interviews are in French, so I’ve had trouble getting a handle on him. But, it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that he thinks himself a prophet.

Look, I obviously disagree with some of what you said about prog back in your Van Der Graaf Generator response. I don’t think that prog is silly by definition. But Magma is fucking ridiculous. Magma is everything that you thought Van Der Graaf Generator was, times an infinity. An entire infinity. They are maybe the silliest band ever, even more so because they are completely sincere, and most of their audience appears to enjoy them without the barest hint of irony, as well.

I find this a completely untenable way of approaching Magma. They’re the sort of band that leaves me reaching for Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” to explain why I enjoy them. But I do enjoy them, very sincerely. It’s just that a significant part of my enjoyment comes from my sincere appreciation for ridiculousness. I’m completely okay with the sort of music where the artist’s reach exceeds their grasp, many times over. I even find it preferable to most of the alternatives.

I’m a bit jealous of you for getting to experience Magma for the first time, live. Their shows are famously impressive and intense, to the point where their live albums almost make their studio output feel superfluous. The lineup has changed constantly since the 70s, but every cohort has been pretty much equally stellar. They’ve made some of their most acclaimed music in the last decade.

I have my doubts about whether this will be for you. But, you’ll at least be able to say that you’ve seen one of the strangest acts in popular music. This is like seeing Beefheart, or Henry Cow, or John Cage blending vegetables in front of an audience.

So, I’ll see you Thursday, for the greatest evening of virtuoso sci-fi jazz you’re ever likely to experience. I’ll expect your response sometime Friday.

I am ludicrously excited.

— Matthew

Beardyman: live in concert (pt. 2)


Dear Matt:

What do you mean I couldn’t get anybody else to go see Magma with me? I’ve got tons of friends who like Magma! Scads, even! I wish you could meet them, but they all live in Canada. Wait…

Beardyman was fun. Really, it was a great show and I had a good time. But, dear god I am a walking cadaver today. As you’ll no doubt be acutely aware yourself, the concert ended after 1 AM — on a Wednesday night. I am writing this in stolen moments during coffee/lunch breaks, animated only by a truly monstrous amount of caffeine. Be informed that my present exhaustion, and the fact that I am a young/old man who Just Cannot Handle This Kind of Thing, is probably colouring my recollections of the concert.


Let me start by enthusing about the Beardytron 5000. This contraption is every musician’s dream. It’s what Frank Zappa thought he’d found when he discovered the Synclavier. “It’s my nightmare,” said Beardyman last night, “but it’s also set me free.”

That’s a familiar sentiment to anybody who has ever played an instrument. I remember the frustration from my years as a trumpet student: I knew how I wanted the music on the page in front of me to sound, but the tool at my disposal was a difficult, primitive piece of 19th-century technology — basically, a metal tube that you make fart noises into.

The metaphor I use to explain this sometimes is that playing an instrument is like paying rent. Your rent payment is the thing that allows you to continue living in your apartment. But, it can also be the obstacle that prevents you from continuing to live in your apartment. Likewise, instruments are the things that allow you to make music, but they’re simultaneously the thing that comes between your musical vision and the actual sound.

When Beardyman says that the Beardytron has set him free, he means rent-free. In the context of my metaphor. God, I’m tired.

But, let’s focus for a second on the first part of Beardyman’s explanation: “It’s my nightmare.” He said that because for all it’s awesomeness, the Beardytron is still a ludicrous, cobbled-together Rube Goldberg machine (with a name straight out of Calvin and Hobbes) that sometimes does not work.

Last night, there were at least two instances where the Beardytron was misbehaving sufficiently for its maker to comment on it. They may have been my favourite parts of the night, because those moments emphasized the extent to which Beardyman is a musical Doc Brown: undoubtedly a genius, but an incredibly silly one whose unlikely inventions sometimes blow up in his face.

That’s what makes Beardyman fun — not just that he’s a fantastic musician (good lord, can this man beatbox), but that he’s willing to go to ridiculous lengths to get all those beats out of his head and into the world.

All the same, there were moments where this concert got tiresome for me. As you know, my attitude towards dancing is somewhat along the lines of Taber, Alberta. So, I spent the concert standing with the (reassuringly large) contingent of people who’d rather just listen.

Occasionally, I found myself thinking that I was going about this all wrong. Dance music is sometimes of only limited interest to people standing still. But equally often, I would look down at that writhing horde, dancing to a beat constructed from Beardyman’s ramblings about Bryan Adams and Celine Dion killing the Queen, and think: “What are you even doing? What is this music even for?”

And then I stopped thinking, and I felt just fine.


Beardyman: live in concert (pt. 1)


Dear Matthew:

I’m pleased to hear that you liked Wrong. It fills me with hope.

But, as discussed in real life, we’ll be doing something a little different this week. I know it’s a little early in this blog’s life for a format change, but you had the idea that we should make each other go to some live shows. Mostly I just think you couldn’t convince anyone else to go see Magma with you later this month, but either way, we’re switching it up this week, and this week, you’re coming with me to see Beardyman.

Daren ‘Beardyman’ Foreman is hard to describe; any one term I think of is inadequate on its own. He’s a beatboxer. He’s a mimic. He’s an improviser. He’s a live looper. He’s a producer. He’s got about a million things going on in his head at any one time, and he keeps getting better and better at turning them into music with ever decreasing latency. To this end, he has created a device he calls the Beardytron 5000, and that’s what he’ll be using when we see him play on Wednesday.

The Beardytron 5000 is, essentially, a device for translating the sounds in Foreman’s head into music in as close to real time as possible. It’s a series of iPads and various control surfaces hooked up to a number of computers, and Foreman uses it to sample his voice, and then loop and tweak it in any boundless number of ways. It may look like he’s using prerecorded noises or preset synthesizers up there, but he’s not — it’s all built on his voice.

He’s also hilarious. I expect that this particular performance will be mostly just him making (comparatively) straightforward music, since he’s touring to promote his new album, but at other times his performances are almost closer to standup comedy. A favourite gag of his is to ask the audience to shout out genres and made-up song titles, which he will create on the spot. (His sense of humour is also pitch black, which I’m beginning to realize is a common feature in things I like.)

I’m not sure how much appreciation you have for electronic dance music, but I know you like talented and unique musicians, and there are few musicians more talented or more unique than Beardyman. I hope you enjoy the show.

— Matt